Same Trauma, Different Outcome – Why some people have a harder time getting “over it.”

We live in a society where hierarchies exist both in our minds and in more tangible ways. Status comes from wealth, position, appearance, and popularity. We compare ourselves to others throughout our lives, both in positive and negative ways. While we are aware, on some level, that these comparisons are not based on any scientific truth we feel like they are true and we often act as if they are true and the consequences of this sometimes prevent people from being able to achieve all that they would like to in their lives.

Many of us can identify with the thoughts that others are better than us in some way (see Jealous Much?) or that we don’t quite measure up, but few of us would ever say outright, that we are better than someone else. I think we do, however, sort others into some kind of a hierarchy, either above or below us. When we encounter someone we might classify (even subconsciously) as ‘below us’ our judgement often comes out in terms like,

  “I didn’t need help to quit drinking, I just put my mind to it.” or “I was abused too and I don’t use that as an excuse.” or “My family came here with nothing. We just worked hard and made our own way we didn’t ask for any government handouts.”  

Essentially, we are asking, “what is wrong with this person?” or “these people?”  (Check out 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People). This line of reasoning starts with the assumption that the one experience or event that we have in common with that person or those people, is the only variable at play. We don’t think of the fact that, as human beings, we don’t live in laboratories and so there are 1000’s of variable at play in each of our lives, even when we might have some big things in common. These variables will result in a wide variety of responses to similar events and experiences.  

Here are some examples showing how variables within similar contexts can contribute to different kinds of outcomes: 

PLEASE NOTE: Influences are not synonymous with ‘excuses.’ Understanding influences is more likely to clarify where responsibility lies and what aspects are within or outside of an individuals’ control, in terms of change. This is likely to be more helpful in finding ways to heal than assuming that an individual carries all the responsibility for their struggles or none at all.


Two sisters live in the same home and have the same set of parents. One starts drinking and seems unable to hold a job or a relationship. The other finished her PhD in record time and gets a high paying job by the age of 30. …What happened?

  • First of all, unless they are twins, their parents were at a different place in life, had different stressors and different levels of maturity and learning at each stage of their children’s lives. All parents have a different number of children, with each new child that is born, and are a different age at the start of each child’s life. They are likely to respond differently to each child, due to these factors, thereby influencing a child’s experiences of them.
  • Each child is born with a different temperament which will interact differently to each parents’ temperament resulting in different responses to the child and conversely, the child’s response to the parent.
  • Parents often respond differently to different gendered kids, or kids with different sexual orientations that that of their parents. Kids whose interests are different from their parents, or that their parents don’t value, are going to have a different experience of their parents than their siblings. Kids who have a disability, experience a serious illness, physical or mental will also have a very different parenting experience than their siblings.
  •  Other variables might include parents changing their beliefs, joining a religion, moving jobs or experiencing some other major event which will impact their parenting at different parts of each siblings development.  

The influence of parenting styles on children is well documented. Ask anyone the pros and cons of the way their parents related to them as children and its impact on them and you will usually get a clear quick answer. We know that our parents influenced who we are today both positively and negatively

Obviously each person will also make different decisions throughout their life which will influence their current situations, but judging a decision as bad or good is not based in any kind of fact. Decisions are made within a context that you cannot fully understand when it is not you. While we are responsible for our decisions, more often than not, they are the best we could manage given our abilities, knowledge, and experience, at that time (see 5 Steps to Recovering from Failure).


Two people were sexually abused, as children, one is doing well, the other is struggling to get out of bed, is having flashbacks, and has been hospitalized for a suicide attempt. …Why is this? 

  • Differences in the age that the trauma occurred will obviously affect individuals differently.
  • The way that the adults around each person responded to this event will impact each person differently. When it comes to sexual abuse, cultural and religious contexts can also contribute to differences in responses to children when they are abused.
  • The access to supportive adults throughout childhood and adulthood, along with other experiences of trauma or harm will impact each person differently.
  •  Inherited vulnerabilities, such as mental health issues will also contribute to the outcome for each person.
  •  The relationships of the victims to the perpetrators may also vary and impact each person differently.
  • The length of time the abuse occurred will also impact each person differently.
  •  Again, see siblings for comments on personal choices.

 The Generational Divide

When I was young, there was no such thing as mental illness or therapy. We just did what we had to do there were no excuses.

  •  In the case of different generations, obviously, the older person was the age of the younger person in a completely different context, historically, and possibly geographically, if they immigrated during their lifetime, never mind the variables of having different parents, personalities, etc.
  • Various cultural groups have defined mental illness differently, throughout history Treatment for mental illness has varied widely, and continues to vary, but it has existed as long as written history.
  •  The idea that one generation coped better with the same stressors or events, as another would be impossible to measure. First, you would have to define coping. Some might believe that being emotionally unavailable to your loved ones, having an explosive temper or engaging in various forms of addiction, ranging from substances and alcohol, to overworking, is an acceptable way to cope. Others may minimize their own experiences of anxiety or depression and not be forthcoming about the ways that it impacts their day to day life.
  • Also, there are as many variations within one generation as between generations, in terms of how individuals’ experiences the events of their own era, geography and culture. This will obviously be impacted by social location, gender, sexuality, economic statues, racial identity, etc. as well. Obviously many individuals in any generation will cope well, and many will not even with similar stressors, events or experiences.

Cultural Groups

 Two cultural groups immigrate to the same country around the same time. One seems to thrive, the other struggles.

Last year, my kids and I did some research on historical waves of immigration to Manitoba, for their Geography class. In the groups we studied, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Mennonite and more,  I found that one story repeated itself over and over again – newcomers were not welcomed by those who were once newcomers themselves. This happened in varying ways and in varying degree depending on the group coming and the group protesting, but in general, the complaints and fears were always the same. There were complaints that newcomers were inferior to those already here. Fears that newcomers would take the jobs from those who were hear first, that the newcomers were not as cultured, were responsible for rising crime rates and were impacting neighbourhoods in negative ways.

In the past few years, at least since I’ve been paying attention, I’ve heard this story repeated as the waves continue. The following are some variable that I believe influence these responses based my reading and observations to date:

  • Obviously, experiences in the country of origin are going to contribute to the wellbeing of the community psychologically, physical health and economic wellbeing.
  • The culture of each group will adapt differently to a new environment, ones that have more in common with the new society will likely adapt easier, particularly if their country of origin has had a lot of interaction with the new society.
  • There is often a hierarchy in society based on those who immigrated earlier being, obviously, more established and making decisions about the culture of the place and judging newer arrivals based on their own particular values, cultural ideals and biases. If this more established group of people identify more strongly with one newcomer group than another, there may be more resources, and opportunities provided to that particular group.
  • This may have long term impacts as wealth and position in society tends to take a long time to shift. Decisions to assimilate do not always guarantee acceptance. Sometimes groups work hard to adopt a new culture, discarding religion, language and cultural markers in order to ‘blend in’ only to be rejected due to things that cannot be changed, such as skin colour, or just stubborn prejudices.


For more on differences see “The More We Get Together…” Managing Family Conflict over the Holidays

And Bad Behavior – Who’s Responsible?

Also check out Before Leaving your Faith Community 



6 thoughts on “Same Trauma, Different Outcome – Why some people have a harder time getting “over it.”

  1. Pingback: When Grief gets Complicated | It's Not Just You

  2. Pingback: 9 Myths about Emotions | It's Not Just You

  3. Pingback: The 4 Adult Attachment Styles | It's Not Just You

  4. Pingback: Nightmares as Signposts | It's Not Just You

  5. Pingback: 8 Ways to Care for Strong Emotions | It's Not Just You

  6. Pingback: Processing Memories with EMDR | It's Not Just You

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s